A great new piece in The New Yorker by Dana Goodyear, The Stress Test, gives us a window into Charles Vacanti’s side of the STAP cell mess and includes recent quotes from him.
It’s a long, fascinating look inside of STAP, the tangled and ultimately tragic scientific implosion that created and then brought down two Nature papers and some careers.
The most notable part of the article is that the stem cell community finally hears from Vacanti, postdoc mentor of lead author Haruko Obokata. We also gain more insight into the working relationship between Vacanti and Obokata, which as the piece tells it became increasingly distant after the STAP papers were published. For instance, even before publication but after Obokata’s return to RIKEN from Vacanti’s lab, her continuing work on STAP, and teaming up with Sasai:
“Obokata’s data were closely guarded—other lab members knew only that she was working on a radical new way to make stem cells. Even Vacanti was excluded from the day-to-day progress. He wrote to Obokata seeking updates, and got responses from Sasai. “Haruko has been so busy over the past two months and, from what I see, got exhausted time to time,” he wrote. “I hope that you may understand such a situation and kindly help her concentrate.” When Obokata did find time to respond to Vacanti, she signed her notes, “With a lot of love,” and reassured him that she just wanted to see him smile.”
and then later after STAP broke and there was basking to do in the positive media glow initially:
“But, by the time the news cycle finished, Vacanti’s fears had been realized. He had vanished from Obokata’s narrative. Nature’s news site carried a recording of her talking about how she had come up with STAP. Like Archimedes, she described her eureka moment as having taken place in the bathtub, when she started to wonder if mammalian cells responded to stress by producing stem cells. “I tried everything I could think of,” she says. “Squeezing cells through a pipette, starving cells, and so on.” Martin Vacanti called his brother. “Chuck, have you listened to her description of the eureka moment?” he said. Chuck hadn’t. “She gave the same description I give about the sporelike cells,” Martin said. She was using his eureka moment.”
The New Yorker piece starts the STAP story as an idea of Vacanti’s from years ago related to his notion of spore stem cells. This was mentioned in my early interview with Vacanti right after the STAP papers were published.
Obokata arrived on the scene in his lab and ran with the idea. Ultimately it seems from Goodyear’s piece that Vacanti felt in the end that Obokata ran away with the idea to some extent.
When the whole thing started unraveling, Goodyear reports that Vacanti contacted Obokata to ask what the real deal was:
“As the questions mounted, Vacanti says, he called Obokata and said, “Haruko, I have to know, because people are losing their careers on this. Is any of this data fabricated?” She assured him that everything was legitimate. He recalls that she said, “If I was going to fake this, I wouldn’t have spent hours and hours collecting data.” Vacanti thought that she was too smart to cheat so brazenly, and certainly too smart to get caught.”
Overall the narrative in this article paints Vacanti as a perhaps over exuberant, true believer in STAP (even to this day perhaps), and the quotes seem to place most of the responsibility for STAP related to experimental issues back in Japan either with Obokata or if she is to be believed (e.g. in her new book) with Teru Wakayama.
What’s next for Vacanti?
It seems that his lab may soon close:
“At the end of July, Vacanti invited me to Boston. Because of the embarrassment around STAP, he had taken a sabbatical from his chairmanship, and would soon retire from his position. His lab would eventually run out of money, and then close. But his faith in the basic principles of STAP was unshakable. “I will go to my grave still being absolutely certain that it’s correct,” he said.”
I find it striking that Vacanti and his protegé Koji Kojima, another STAP author, were still working on STAP-related experiments as of the writing of Goodyear’s article. Amazing.
Where does this leave STAP?
There are still a number of open questions, but overall it feels closer to closure.
Anyone can make mistakes. Falling in love with a hypothesis is not unheard of. Hyping a story happens. Trusting someone and finding that trust misplaced.
But STAP went beyond more commonplace glitches in the scientific process. It seems to have been a perfect storm case of several big things all on one project going terribly wrong including evidence in RIKEN’s view of misconduct by Obokata.
The tragedy of Dr. Sasai’s suicide after STAP should also highlight the seriousness of these kinds of situations and the fact that scientists are people too with feelings. Many other scientists were hurt by the STAP situation including some with no substantive link to it.
As for the science side of things, there may be a link between stress and cellular plasticity, but it’s not going to be what was claimed as STAP.
Today and into the future, STAP serves mainly as a cautionary tale of the types of problems to try one’s best to avoid as a scientist.
Overall responsibility for STAP, even if in very different ways, resides both in the U.S. and Japan. Goodyear’s article has made this reality clearer.